Movie Review: Heaven’s Gate

HeavensGateby Steve Lancaster5/6/16
It has been 25 years since Michael Cimino released Heaven’s Gate. Most of the controversy has died down. It was an expensive movie to make and killed the studio, United Artists. The cost of production exceeded 40 million dollars and domestic revenue was less than 4 million. Only the success of Cimino’s Deer Hunter kept the studio from cancelling the project. Cimino was given so much artistic freedom that the story he told with Heaven’s Gate and the actual history became two separate narratives.

The movie is full of stars: Kris Kristofferson, Isabell Hubbard, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, and Jeff Bridges with a short by Joseph Cotton. It staggers imagination how all of these very capable actors could produce a questionable product.

The story is listed as a western and many critics have called it, with good reason, an anti-western. It is allegedly about the 1890 Johnson County Wyoming War. As a historian I can tell you that any resemblance between the actual history of the Johnson County War and Heaven’s Gate is an accident on the part of the director. However, should that ruin the story?

The story is about an Eastern aristocrat, Jim Averill/Kristofferson, who graduates from Harvard in 1870 and twenty years later is marshal of Johnson County. The story is played out against a backdrop of massive numbers of Eastern European settlers who are taking over the free range — and the stockmen’s association seeking to protect that range. Nate Champion/Christopher Walken is an enforcer for the association and Jim Averill’s friend. The also share a love interest with Ella Watson/Isabell Hubbard who is the madam of a local brothel.

Sam Waterston plays the leader of the Stockmen’s Association. The association votes to go to war to protect their range and recruits 100 men to scour Johnson County and execute 125 of the leaders in the county, including Ella Watson, Nate Champion and, if he joins the cause, Jim Averill.

It is pretty standard fare as a plot without any redeeming subplots and the movie ends on a confusing note some 23 years later with Averill on a yacht with the girl he started the movie with at Harvard in 1870.

In spite of some poor performances, questionable direction, confusing plot and lack of any kind of historical accuracy, why recommend Heaven’s Gate? The music score by David Mansfield is magnificent and the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond make the movie. The opening of the movie blends music and picture into a bewitching invitation. It is Harvard Yard 1870, the first class of graduates untouched by war march into the graduation ceremonies to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Later the entire class is shown dancing a waltz, The Beautiful Blue Danube — the second best use of this waltz, with the best being from 2001.

Zsigmond captures the big sky county in such a manner that the viewer feels the power and openness of the country and yet many shots are framed in such a way that they would stand as a painting you would want on your wall. One such shot shows Ella bathing nude in the river with Jim asleep leaning on a buggy wheel. It is almost a Monet on film.

Music and cinematography mix again in the roller rink with a beautiful theme played on a fiddle and several hundred people dancing on roller skates to the tune. Later, after all have left, it turns into a waltz for just Jim and Ella.

Perceptive viewers could easily work modern themes into the movie. Big business, big government, exploitation of the poor and privilege of the wealthy all have substance but sometimes you just have to suspend belief and enjoy a passable story, with some incredible music and pictures. • (807 views)

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4 Responses to Movie Review: Heaven’s Gate

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I remember seeing ads for the movie, but never saw the movie itself. I have read about the Johnson County War in a chapter in a book on Western wars and feuds (I have a great deal of material on the old West). The Blue Danube Waltz reminds me of a scene in the August 1943 bombing of Ploesti. The Americans came in low, and as they crossed the Danube, one crew member noted that it wasn’t blue at all — “It looks like the Colorado River at Moab.” Of course, it may look rather different in Vienna, before all those rivers draining the rich upper Balkan farmland join it.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Of course, it may look rather different in Vienna, before all those rivers draining the rich upper Balkan farmland join it.

      Having studied in Vienna, which is close to the Danube, I can assure you it is not blue. It is, however, beautiful. Whether one goes upstream to Krems or downstream to Budapest, the scenery is lovely. As when sailing the Rhine, traveling on the Danube is a history tour.

      As to “Heaven’s Gate”, the first mistake Cimino made was casting. Kristoffersen is a third rate actor at best. And to try and sell him as Eastern Aristocrat, is like trying to sell a sow’s ear for a silk purse.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I’ve seen a similar point regarding the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was the first of the Eon series not featuring Sean Connery. I think it was Kingsley Amis in The James Bond Dossier who noted that Connery could not have played Bond pretending to be Sir Hilary Bray, whereas George Lazenby (whatever his flaws overall as James Bond) could.

      • David Ray says:

        Krisofferson was good in “Payback”. I was surprised to see him in good shape at that age.

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